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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work!

It's never too late to address this subject. Yes, many of us are gearing down from the epic standardized testing season, enjoying the freedom, released from the many pressures that come with the tests. However, these tests will keep happening. Whether a yearly course assessment, a six-week benchmark exam or a state-level competency test, teachers and students are inundated with testing. Because of the way that testing permeates education culture, I often hear some "pushback" from teachers and their implementation of project-based learning. Here are some tips and responses to that tension between PBL and standardized tests.

Don't Wait!

"I'll wait til after the testing season," is one I hear often. I know where it comes from: the pressure. If you say this, you are defeating the purpose of PBL. PBL's intent is to drive new learning, to engage students in learning critical content that is leveraged and tested. I'm not saying, "Don't do PBL after testing," just that if you truly want to leverage PBL and capitalize on its strengths, use it to teach content that will be on the test. What the PBL teachers often intend to do after testing is a culminating project or activity that will celebrate and review learning. This isn't PBL. However, there is nothing wrong with this sort of project or activity. Keep doing it, because it does engage students. I simply want to make sure that you know the difference between a culminating project and PBL.

Power Standards/Learning Targets

Whether individually or through facilitated professional development, teachers spend a lot of time unpacking the standardized tests and the targeted standards and learning on which they're based. When you design a PBL project, make sure it hits those frequently targeted standards or learnings. If you know a specific book or genre is a frequent testing target in the AP English Literature exam, use the PBL project to go in-depth on that content. If you know Linear Equations are tested the most often or weighted more in the state test, then use PBL to ensure that students walk away not only knowing their linear equations inside out, but also being able to think critically and make relevant connections.

Embed Test Stems and Questions in the PBL Project

Standardized test preparation does not need to go "out the window." It can be embedded effectively into the PBL itself. When I create PBL projects, I make sure to look at related test questions and either use them in the project or use the stems to create my own. For example, I might create a project from the reading standard stems for whatever fiction or non-fiction text we happen to be reading. In addition, these test prep questions, whether short answer or multiple choice, can serve as excellent formative assessments for student learning. They can let me know if students need more preparation so that the test isn't unfamiliar or intimidating, and they can indicate whether students have learned the content or skill. Look at the sample test questions and use them to create excellent formative assessments throughout the PBL project.

PBL Projects Where They Fit

Some of us have to deal with testing more frequently than others. If, for example, you have six-week benchmark testing, then you must focus the PBL on the content in that six weeks. Design PBL projects that hit multiple standards in that time period or at least hit a couple of power standards. I've said this before: "Don't try to fit a square peg through a round hole." We've all been in that place of "trying too hard" to make the project work. If it doesn't fit, then don't do it. Work within the structures you have if you want to find an opportune time for an in-depth dive into a PBL project.

Hopefully these tips will help you not only to relax, but also to focus when it comes to designing PBL projects within the world of standardized testing. Don't let those tests hold you back from doing what you know works for students: in-depth, authentic and relevant work that engages all kids. Simply embed them and choose times for them that are appropriate and natural!

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Chris Fancher's picture

As you said, there are key objectives and standards on every test. That could be a 6 week benchmark or an end of year state standardized test. Those are the targets you aim for during your projects. And PBL teachers will be spiraling in objectives seen earlier in the year throughout the rest of their projects. Don't look at standardized tests as obstacles. Instead, look at them as focal points in your planning for projects.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

The commentary and the comment are right on target! The only complication would be misalignment of standards and standardized test topics. Even governments wouldn't be that cruel, would they? Assuming the answer is "no" to that question, the time lost is in administering the standardized tests (SS - hmmm ...). And I predict better scores with use of PBL.

Teriah White's picture
Teriah White
Sixth grade Language Arts/Reading teacher from OH via Stone Mountain, GA

I totally appreciate your insights on how to effectively incorporate PBL into Standardized testing. Often times we are so inundated with pacing guides, and benchmarks, it's just less stressful to teach the standards in a way that will yield the achievement gains school districts want. However, what I have found in my own teaching using this method, is an ability to experience great achievement gains with my below grade-level students, but not enough rigor for my students at or above grade-level, and this is totally disheartening! This summer will be spent incorporating more PBL opportunities that are student-centered, and student-directed, which will require students to use the higher-order thinking to contruct their own meanings. It's so simple to get students to buy-in when it's meaningful to them, and when they think they're running things. Thanks for this gem!

Chad Powers's picture

Many computer-based standardized Science tests are beginning to use mini-projects embedded into the questions. Students have to use the results of an "experiment" to think critically and answer questions. In my mind, this strengthens the relationship between PBL and preparation for the standardized tests. In addition, why wouldn't you utilize a tool which is much more likely to engage students than a worksheet or quiz??

Ellen's picture

My school just went 1-1 with technology for the impending PARCC test. I like the idea of power standards. What a great way to incorporate PBL into the classroom by focusing on the most important standards. Since I changed my teaching style to standards based, I think PBL would be a great addition to my practice. I think it's an interesting concept to incorporate test questions into the PBL especially since the PARCC is an online assessment. If I can infuse the necessary technology with the power standards I believe my students will truly excel.

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